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Old Movie Theatres

So... as I mentioned in a previous post, somewhere down below, a couple of months ago I bought the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a small movie theatre in Santa Fe that has been dark since Trans-Lux closed it down in 2006. We've been busily restoring it ever since, and hope to reopen in August. More news on all that will be forthcoming, as we get closer to the grand re-opening. My builders and designers assure me that all is going well, even though the place looks a total mess right now. That's the way it goes with construction; it has to get a lot worse before it gets better.

But I don't want to talk about the Cocteau just now, but rather theatres in general. I've always loved old theatres, especially the grand movie palaces of the 20s and 30s (the Cocteau, I hasten to add, is not one of those, as it was built in 1984), and the vaudeville halls that came before them. Buying the Cocteau, and putting its restoration into motion, has rekindled that old love. We've lost way too many of these beautiful buildings in the past half-century. Today's multiplexes are, with a few rare exception, soulless sterile cubicles with neither beauty nor personality. Sure, they are functional... but for me at least, they will never match the old halls.

I was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey. In my childhood, Bayonne had five movie theatres, every one with its own distinctive character. Four of them were on Broadway, Bayonne's main drag. The Strand burned down when I was very young, so I have no clear memories of it... but I recall the DeWitt, the Lyceum, and the Plaza vividly... and even the Victory, a gargantuan mausoleum the old timers all called "the Opera House," since that's what it had been. All of them are gone now. Bayonne has no movie theatres at all at present. The DeWitt, the best of them, has been a McDonald's for a quarter century. Whenever I go back to Jersey to see my family and see the golden arches where the theatre once stood, I want to weep and gnash my teeth.

The Bayonne theatres were not the only places I saw movies as a kid, however. Jersey City is just north of Bayonne, and at the heart of Jersey City is Journal Square, where three huge movie theatres once stood. The Loew's Jersey, the State, and the Stanley were true movie palaces, dwarfing Bayonne's smaller and less ornate theatres. That's where my family would go (by bus, of course, we did not own a car) once or twice a year to see the BIG pictures. They had huge screens, huge lobbies, huge auditoriums with seating for thousands. And my god, but they were ornate. Cathedrals of the cinema... they impressed me more than any of the [many] real cathedrals that I've visited since

But sad to say, Journal Square fell into decay in the 60s and 70s, and people stopped coming there as they once had. Inevitably, that took its toll on movie attendance, and one by one, Jersey City's three great movie palaces ran into trouble. The Loew's Jersey was mutilated and turned into a triplex, its huge auditorium divided down the center aisle to make two halls, while the balcony became the seating for a third. Even that did not arrest the decline; the Loew's closed all the same, and sat empty for years. At one point it was almost knocked down, but thankfully some preservationists stepped in and saved it. It has now been restored as a performing arts center, and still screens movies from time to time. Next time I'm back in Jersey, I'd love to visit it again.

The State's fate, alas, was crueller. That one the vandals cut up into a six-plex. Which did not work either. Urban decay took its toll, the theatre closed its doors, developers got hold of it, and they knocked it down. Offices and shops now fill the space where it once stood. The State was never quite the equal of the Loew's or the Stanley, but I probably saw more films there than in the other two. I mourn it.

And the Stanley... well, that's what prompted this long, rambling, nostalgic post of mine. The Stanley was not quite as ornate as the Loew's, but it was, I think, more beautiful. Sitting in its auditorium, beneath a ceiling painted to resemble sky, you almost felt as if you were outdoors. I always loved seeing films at the Stanley, and I was heartsick when it closed. Unlike the State and Loew's, however, the Stanley was never cut up into a multiplex. Instead, purchased by the Jehovah's Witnesses, it became a church and meeting hall. And it continued to decay...

Until now. For while blundering about the internet, I discovered that the Witnesses have recently restored the Stanley... adding a few religious touches that were not part of the original decor, to be sure (there were no murals of Jehovah in a chariot when I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA there), but otherwise coming damn close to bringing this magnificent building back to its original glory.

Do I wish the Stanley was still showing movies, rather than being a church? Sure, I do. But it still gladdens my heart to see it returned to such splendor.

I'm not a religious guy (unless you count movies as a religion), but this makes me wish the State, the Lyceum, the DeWitt, the Plaza, and the Victory had all been turned into churches too. At least we'd still have them.


Jul. 5th, 2013 02:54 am (UTC)
Quality presentation starts at the top.
I'm a former projectionist who worked for 19 years, running almost every movie theatre in Toronto in that time, including s few picture palaces, festivals and many premieres in the Festival. I'm deeply saddened by the demise of 35mm film, and those visually magnificent 70mm roadshow presentations, but even more so by the disregard for the quality of presentations that preceded film's abandonment.

Inane slide shows, commercials, endless trailers (3 or 4 are great!) were just the beginning. Now there is 20-30 minutes of junk on the head of any feature and the end result is a consumer of movies who's bladder is full and brain pre-addled before the first frame of the feature flickers to life.

When I put a show together the unobtrusive "non-sync" music would fade and the houselights would slowly dim over 30 to 45 seconds. The company's logo would be shown over the white curtain, which would open as the footlights dimmed in perfect synchronization. Three or four trailers would show, and maybe a corporate policy trailer. Curtains would close, footlights would come up and stay up for a few seconds--longer if we had to change from flat to CinemaScope upstairs. Company logo for the Feature presentation trailer would hit the closed screen and the curtains open/lights down for the duration. AND THE LIGHTS STAYED DOWN until the very last frame went through my projector and the dowser closed! Only then did the audience slowly get brought back into reality. We also ran THX or DolbyDigital trailers where applicable, and I often goosed the volume control a half notch for those 20 or so seconds to put a little 'zing' in the pre-show.

This is the mark of real showmanship in the booth. I loved it and would give my very soul to be back upstairs for the remainder of my days. I implore you to get a good showman or two in your projection room(s). Give them free reign to be creative and don't be afraid to bounce their butts the instant they start short-changing the audience by cutting corners with the presentation. I kept my projectors, port glass and floors clean enough to eat off, spliced with care, checked every single inch for damaged perfs and made sure my apertures were filed with precision; no overshoot onto the maskings from my booths! I always saw my role as the wizard who made the movies work. The master of the flickering beams shooting out of the port glass.

There are obviously many new challenges in the digital world but having a technical staff who is not just knowledgeable of matters projection but also has a passion for the cinematic experience will be a huge asset that no sterile, corporate multiplex can ever match.

Sadly I'm in New Jersey, not Sante Fe, so I can't be of much help, but I'm sure there are many displaced projectionists who could do you proud.


George R.R. Martin
George R. R. Martin

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